Leading the championship standings through most of the regular season, Elliott Sadler was one of the favorites for the 2016 XFINITY Series championship.
It came down to the last lap, but he came up short in his quest of becoming a NASCAR champion.
Saturday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sadler struggled with substitute crew chief Mike Bumgarner. The No. 1 car faded after taking the initial green flag from the second starting position.
Rebounding to battle for the lead and leading a lap late in the race, the JR Motorsports crew had a bad stop, putting Sadler to come from behind, yet again, fading back to 18th.
During the final pit stop, coming with eight laps to go, Sadler’s team took two tires, getting him off pit road first. He thought he had the race under control.
“We had to try something, the pit stop before we had some lug nuts fall off,” Sadler said post-race. “We tried two tires to get track position. I don’t know what the No. 14 [Cole Whitt] was doing on that restart, he was playing some games up there.
“I waited too long to go. I waited for him and the No. 19 car got a good run on us. Maybe I should have blocked harder.”
Sadler and Bumgarner thought they were going to start with the lead and determine which line they wanted on the restart. However, Whitt, who spent much of the race a lap down, decided to stay out on 30-lap-old tires and restart as the leader.
The No. 14 car chose the outside line, giving Sadler the bottom, right in front of eventual race winner Daniel Suarez. The No. 1 jumped out to the lead but was unable to put his championship competition at harm.
“With the No. 14 doing what he was doing, I hesitated on the start,” Sadler said. “Daniel laid back like he was supposed to, got a good run and made a really good move.
“This one is hard to swallow. We had a really good season, ran good all season long, won some races. We have a strong race team. I hate coming up this short for them.”
Other championship competitors, Suarez and Justin Allgaier had four sticker tires. Erik Jones put six-lap scuffed tires on his Toyota because he was out of fresh tires heading into the final stop. Sadler took two sticker tires because he had used his set of scuffed tires on the run before, which was why he dropped back.
Getting used to Bumgarner was a struggle for Sadler after spending the first 32 races with Kevin Meendering, en route to three victories, 14 top-5 finishes and a career-high 29 top 10s.
“Communication was a little different tonight, which it should have been,” Sadler said. “He did a really good job and tried his best. A few times under pit stops we had confusion on communication, but not bad. He did what he was supposed to do.
“It’s tough when you are working with the same guy all year. It hurt us a little bit, but not a lot. My team fought their guts out all weekend and got us in this position, we just came up a little short.”
While Sadler was upset about finishing second in the championship for the third time in his XFINITY Series career, he was happy for champion Suarez.
“You talk about Erik Jones this, Erik Jones that, Daniel Suarez is the real deal,” Sadler said. “He was by far the best car from Gibbs, the most consistent car all season long. We knew that as a race team. We knew who we were going to race coming down the stretch.”
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